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In Part One of The Power of Belonging in Community Recreation series, Marc Iturriaga introduces belonging and shares why it matters.

I’m here to dissuade a myth that the main limits to member participation in community recreation are the big three: time, money and convenience. These are very important factors we need to negotiate with members, but it has been the sole focus for too long. I am on a professional and personal crusade to shift that focus to belonging, and here’s why.

What is Belonging and Why Does it Matter?

If diversity is the reality, equity is the practice and inclusion is the goal, belonging is the feeling people have when these are realized. The power of belonging is owned by the member, and it is our role as community rec professionals to help foster that power.

If you feel you belong to a community — and that community makes you feel valued and accepted — you’re more likely to be healthy and engaged. We know through research that our connections to others and the strength of those relationships make us less likely to suffer from poor physical, mental and emotional health. With COVID-19 and social activism currently at the forefront in our society, strong social networks encourage engagement to community and willingness to take action.

Community recreation has done a decent job of fostering a sense of belonging for members, but mainly for those already comfortable with the traditional sport and recreation culture that has focused on competition, physical movement and progressive development rather than social connections and fun. In fact, we measure our success through headcounts, registration numbers and revenue which really has nothing to do with community well-being – they are connected but do not tell the whole story. So how do we engage those who currently don’t feel like they belong in our programs, facilities and opportunities?

Belonging in community recreation is a member centric approach focused on three pillars where everyone feels invited, welcome and included. In future articles of this series, we will explore each pillar individually, but for now, here is a quick overview of each:

​Invited. What are the cultures, behaviors and understanding members experience or observe before participating? How are members being invited into your programs, spaces and opportunities that motivates, inspires and leads them to show up as their authentic selves? How are you using language and imagery, creating facility spaces, storytelling, building staffing compliments, creating varied program options and creating invitations based on feelings rather than informing people of opportunities?

Welcome. What are the cultures, behaviors and understanding members experience or observe when they arrive or begin participating? Once members arrive in your programs, spaces and opportunities, how are they made to feel comfortable, important and accepted by instructors, lifeguards, referees and fellow members? Are your programs, policies, facilities and structures created with a welcoming environment for all in mind?

Included. Everyone should be able to use the same facilities, take part in the same activities, and enjoy the same experiences in a way that meets their physical, mental and social needs. How is your community being included in your programs, spaces and opportunities that motivate and inspire them to be lifelong members and/or co-creators of their experience? How are you removing barriers and negotiating constraints to ensure everyone of all shapes, sizes, motivations and identities feel included?

Negotiating time, money and convenience really only helps those who already feel like they belong in community recreation but does nothing for those who do not feel invited, welcome or included. This series of articles will help community recreation professionals begin to prioritize fostering a sense of belonging among your community so that everyone can feel the benefits of sport and recreation. Next time on The Power of Belonging in Community Recreation: Invitation, More than Marketing.

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Marc Iturriaga

Marc Iturriaga is the founder of Bonobo: Fostering Belonging in Sport+Recreation+Community. Marc has over 20 years building inclusive programs and communities through his work in higher education, sport and recreation, and community development.

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